A lot of drinking and heavy thinking can happen on a hot day on a veranda. Two good shows running on Dallas stages right now — The Night of the Iguana at Contemporary Theatre of Dallas and Pluck the Day at Second Thought Theatre — take place on big porches, where characters stand, sit, sweat, loll, fight, eat, dream and, in one play, die. Welcome to the threshold of heaven and hell.
All who come near the veranda at the Costa Verde hotel in Tennessee Williams' Night of the Iguana are at the end of their ropes, including the giant lizard tied up under the floorboards. Hotel owner Maxine, middle-aged, newly widowed and sexually supercharged, is going mad with worry about money when she's not playing grab-ass with the beautiful Mexican boys who work for her. Defrocked Episcopalian minister T. Lawrence Shannon, who calls himself "a man of God ... on vacation," is reduced to leading Texas Baptist teachers on economy tours. Damp with fever, damned to perdition for bedding a tourist's teenage daughter, he's at the hotel to hide out. Whenever Shannon feels a breakdown brewing, he heads for Maxine's, where her liquor and loose loins help bring him back from the brink. Two other characters, Nonno, the world's oldest poet, and Hannah, his gentle grifter of a granddaughter, appear at the hotel pleading for temporary salvation from the desperate situation they're in.
With every living creature in Iguana in desperate straits, the atmosphere stays highly charged, like lightning crackling ahead of a tropical tempest. The temptation in many productions is to go right to the level of hysteria of that lesser Williams work with similar themes about sex, loneliness and beachside death, Suddenly Last Summer. But at Contemporary, director René Moreno, an expert at challenging actors to be better than they've ever been and at bringing fresh angles to old plays, focuses instead on the humor and humanity in Williams' words and characters. (Moreno's also cut out the pro-Nazi German travelers, who only trespass on this play's central plot.)
Now The Night of the Iguana comes alive as sharp dark comedy, with people darting in and out of the tiny hotel rooms on Rodney Dobbs' sprawling, realistic scenery like confused lovers in a French farce. The play still downshifts, when it has to, into hushed tones, but for once the dialogue's poetic wanderings come back to something comprehensible. This is Tennessee Williams as he should be performed, with highs and lows, with laughter and tears. It's the best production Contemporary has done this season. Maybe one of the best this company has ever done.
Moreno and his lavishly talented cast take Williams' collection of runaway oddballs and make us care about why they're screwed up. We want Maxine, played with earthy hip thrusts by the fearless Cindee Mayfield, to find love again. We want the Reverend Shannon, portrayed by the handsomely disheveled Ashley Wood, to sober up and stop lusting after jailbait. Hannah, the "Nantucket spinster" who talks Shannon through a panic attack, is an angel in silk kimono wings as played by the ivory-pale Elizabeth Van Winkle. But she's no saintly virgin. Here her near-seduction by bad-boy Shannon is a languorous scene that builds to a heat wave of sexual chemistry. We want them to kiss and when they do, shazam.
Giving remarkable performances in smaller roles are Lorna Woodford as a bossy Baptist determined to get Shannon fired for lousing up their tour, and Jessica Renee Russell as Charlotte, the besotted teenage girl hot on Shannon's heels. Both actresses command attention without gross exaggerations.
In the role of the frail 97-year-old poet called Nonno, Terry Vandivort, a Theatre Three veteran, gives the production its most deeply touching and graceful moments, imbuing his character with an otherworldly gaze and crackly voice. Speaking the lines of "the last and loveliest poem" he's been trying to finish for ages, old Nonno brings the play to its dreamlike end. The final scene is exquisitely staged and acted, making a gorgeous picture lit beautifully by lighting designer Russell K. Dyer. After a stormy night, only the poet and the captured iguana escape the ropes that held them down. The others, though profoundly changed, aren't so lucky.
Dallas playwright and actor Steven Walters isn't yet the new Tennessee Williams, but his fast and funny play Pluck the Day is good enough to make him at least the new James McLure. Or maybe Tracy Letts lite.
Like an all-male version of McLure's comedy Laundry & Bourbon, or some of the lighter scenes in Letts' Bug or Killer Joe, Walters' 90-minute Pluck the Day mines big laughs out of good ol' boys sucking down beers and getting into obtuse, twangy conversations. In this play they do it on the back porch of a rundown house in South Texas. Second Thought Theatre's new home base, the black box Bryant Hall next to Kalita Humphreys Theater, renders that porch in squalid splendor on designer Matthew Gray's set, complete with lumpy couch and ice chest. (Gray also directed.)
It's a hot, dull Sunday and friends Duck (Clay Yocum in his best role in years) and Bill (Chris LaBove, a slim Keanu type) begin to wonder why Fred (Mike Schraeder) hasn't come home after an all-night bender. Is he on a peyote kick again? Fred's fiancée, April (Jenny Ledel), drops by to check on him. A furtive exchange between her and Bill leads Duck to believe there's something going on there, even though Bill is gay ... or says he is.
"What happens on the porch stays on the porch," says Duck, a former high school gridiron star now in his 30s and sensitive about his expanding paunch. His penchant for rabid, error-ridden gossip belies that philosophy. One lurid item puts April in an Astrovan with a bare-assed Bill in a parking lot behind the Winn-Dixie. When Fred finally does come home, strung out on Jim Beam and peyote buttons, he's pulled into the vortex of suspicions whipped up by Duck. By the time it's all straightened out, all of their relationships have taken U-turns.
Pluck the Day, which Second Thought premiered in their first season as new Baylor grads in 2004, has undergone some rewriting and updating by Walters (now there's an "it gets better" joke, among other pop culture references). Walters finds plenty of humor in how men's friendships change with age and in the shorthand BFFs speak in after years of swapping the same stories. "Why is it every day with you feels like middle school?" asks the smart one, Bill, to Duck, who admits his IQ is somewhere in double digits.
Walters loves wordplay, starting and ending Pluck the Day with two characters filling in crossword clues. He has a fine ear for quirky combinations of syllables that just sound funny, too. Like this from Duck: "It's Sunday. I don't have to be on the emu farm till Monday morning."
On the emu farm of young playwrights, Walters can count Pluck the Day as a feather in his cap.